David R Arnott writes:Tim Hetherington, a photographer and filmmaker, co-directed the movie Restrepo with Sebastian Junger. The film, an intense and powerful insight into the experiences of a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan, has been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category.
Hetherington and Junger followed the men of Battle Company on their deployment to a remote hilltop outpost that they had named ‘Restrepo’ in honor of a fallen comrade, 20 year old medic Juan Restrepo.
Tad Donoho pictured after he was given a ‘pinkbelly’, a traditional slapping of the stomach administered by other members of the platoon on someone’s birthday. Battle Company, 2nd Battalion Airborne of the 503rd US Infantry are undergoing a 15 month deployment in the Korengal Valley, epicentre of the war and scene of fierce fighting with the Taliban.
I spoke by phone with Tim Hetherington this morning.
Q. How does it feel to be nominated for an Oscar?
A. It’s great, we’re completely thrilled. For us, just to make this film in what were incredibly difficult conditions, to get it edited and released, that was success. What’s happening now goes beyond our wildest imaginations. It’s an honor to be nominated for the Oscar, but most of all we hope that it helps to recognise the courage of the soldiers. What it means is the film will get more exposure and continue to contribute to the national conversation and that’s the most important thing.
Q. You got to know many of the families of the soldiers in the film. How have they reacted to the nomination?
A. Well, we posted a message on Facebook to thank everybody for their support, and we got a great response. One that stood out was from Deborah Ussery, who said:
‘On behalf of our family, and my son-in-law, Sgt. Sterling Jones, Congratulations gentlemen! It is a big deal….a very big deal. The work that you did brought attention to the war that truly was forgotten and the plight of our soldiers. This has been a journey for our family and we thank you both for your honesty and candor during that year.’
The film tries to bridge the gap between the military community and the public. That’s what’s really gratifying: that we’ve been able to give the families a voice. When we’re caught up in the politics of the war, we can forget about the human dimensions to it, including the fallout for soldiers and their families. In the time we spent in the Korengal Valley, we were acutely aware that war affects people – both the Afghan citizens and the soldiers who are there and the families on the other side of the world.
Q. What about Juan Restrepo? His name is living on, in a way, through the movie. Have you spoken to his family?
A. I was on the phone yesterday with Marcela, his mom. We’ve been in contact with her a lot. We approached her before the film came out and told her we wanted to call it Restrepo, and she gave us her approval. We made sure the soldiers were the first people to see the film, and I know that some of them flew down to Florida to go to the preview screening there with Marcela.
Restrepo lived an amazing life. Here was a man who was born in Colombia, emigrated with his family when he was a child and became a US citizen, joined the military and ended up dying on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. If you think about it, especially in terms of the immigration debate, that’s an incredible story.
I said to Marcela, obviously nothing can bring back your son, but I hope that the film is a small tribute to him.